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Stubborn Problems: The Homeless Epidemic
California is set to take over Germany’s spot as the world’s fourth-largest economy. A bastion for technology, business, media, and education, the state has been a global powerhouse for decades. That being said, not everything has been nice and shiny in the Golden State. Despite being the world’s fourth largest economy, California also takes the cake as the state with the largest homeless population with California hosting a whopping 30% of the nation’s homeless population.
Homelessness has become a political issue, just as much as it has become a political talking point. It’s also made people feel unsafe. Laura North, a salon owner in Austin, Texas, shares her concern for safety with homeless encampments right next to her business.
North said she's lost clients and employees, and she fears her business is next…"I don't feel safe here," she said. "I don't feel safe asking other people to show up to work here. I feel bad for clients that have to experience [this], and if something's not done, then we'll have to make a really hard choice."
Pictured Above: A homeless encampment outside the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption in Seattle. The congregation has complained that the encampments are scaring off parishioners and that some in the encampments are even using the Church as a place to pick up their Amazon packages. But alas, California is not the only one in the union scrambling for solutions. States like Washington, New York, and even Florida have experienced large numbers. However, states like Florida and Texas have been able to decrease their homeless population in recent years. How so? We’ll dive into the reasons why many states have high homeless populations, why they’ve been unable to reduce them, and compare them to why other states have.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge said “HUD…is committed to ensuring every person has a safe, stable place to call home. Data shows that homelessness remains a national crisis, but it also shows that the historic investments this Administration has made to address this issue, can work.” The data actually doesn’t show this, however. California Governor Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal for the 2023-2024 fiscal year has $3.4 billion allocated to combat homelessness. Activists and local governments alike have called for more money, but the battle continues as California has had to cut spending. Compared to the billions California spends today, when Governor Newsom took over in 2019 homeless funding was around $500 million. Yet the problems have skyrocketed even with the increases in funding. This is odd given the fact that California has the highest tax rate in the country.
The Corporation for Supportive Housing, a non-profit organization, claimed that to house all of California's homeless population would cost around $8 billion over 12 years. Governor Newsom has sparred with local governments over providing more money, citing the increase in homelessness across all major cities. To his credit, local governments have not been exactly helpful in combating the vast amount of sprawling tent encampments. This leads us to one of the sources of the problem: a lack of housing.
Major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco are not only notorious for their housing prices, but for their housing laws as well. Garnering over 8.6 million views in a little over a year, “Liberal Hypocrisy is Fueling American Inequality. Here’s How.” is a short video by New York Times Opinion that discusses the effects of California zoning laws. Cities like L.A. or S.F. have made it extremely difficult to build, and have been stubborn to change. Laws regarding single-family-only zones and high-density housing have stunted the number of available homes in certain locales. To sum up the video in short, city councils have been stubborn to allow low-income housing to be built, mainly due to the resistance from high-income households. They believe that allowing more units in their neighborhoods would reduce the price of their homes - and they can’t have that. Add in a few arguments that crime would increase, and BAM, there goes the effort. If you’re interested in taking a look at zoning more in-depth, take a look at the video linked above. California’s housing laws are also inefficient. Just take a look at how it cost L.A $837,000 to build one housing unit. That’s more expensive than the average price of a home in California. Cities like L.A. and S.F. have something I like to call “Damsel in Distress” syndrome, where they - the damsel - are waiting for a big hero to save them - the California state government. The cities are consistently looking to be helped out, and they always seem to be in some kind of trouble asking for assistance. Unlike the damsel, however, it’s as if some cities jump right back into danger. Receive money, say thanks, don’t do much with it, and then ask for more money again because you just wasted half of it on overhead arguing about zoning laws (that didn’t change). Rinse and repeat.
Meanwhile, in Texas, cities like Houston have been much more accommodating with building laws.
While cities like L.A., S.F., or Seattle have been weary to approve even a few housing units, cities like Houston have been much more liberal. And unlike California cities, Houston has put a much bigger emphasis on permanent housing. While states like Vermont or Maine have high homeless rates per capita, they've been successful in moving the homeless into government-sponsored permanent housing. New York City even has more permanent housing units than its west-coast counterparts, which is why it is not as big of an issue there. Houston has done the same. And it's not as if Houston is without its own problems. A lack of housing for extremely low-income households, as well as a high eviction rate, has forced them to become more streamlined and organized than their Californian counterparts. Drug abuse and eroding job opportunities have contributed to the rise, however. Most research shows that around 1/3 of people who are homeless have problems with alcohol and/or drugs, and around 2/3 of these people have lifetime histories of drug or alcohol use disorder. According to SAMHSA, 38% of homeless people abused alcohol while 26% abused other drugs. While substance abuse has been a stereotype of all homeless people and is certainly a problem, a lack of affordable housing seems to be the common denominator. Building more houses makes them cost less, which in turn allows for more people to buy or rent
Videos circulated online of store owners taking out their anger on homeless individuals, such as Collier Gwin, who sprayed a homeless woman in San Francisco after she refused to move from sitting outside of his store. It seemed as if the online community was madder about Gwin than they were of the housing prices that virtually eliminated the woman’s chance of finding a home. If cities are to fix their problems, they need to first lower their housing prices. Dictatorship by rich neighborhoods is not the way to run a city, nor does it help the crisis. This is not about politics (Houston is a Democrat-run city, as are all of the other cities mentioned here). We can learn from Houston and its “less-is-more” concepts. Fewer regulations have actually resulted in more permanent housing.